Hope was growing tonight that Russia’s stranglehold on Ukraine’s crucial coastal supply route was easing after Moscow’s troops fled the strategic outcrop of Snake Island.
The key piece of land in the Black Sea became a symbol of Ukraine ’s resistance at the beginning of the war when a demand for surrender was met with the phrase “Go f**** yourself”.
Despite Russian claims their retreat was an “act of good will” Ukraine confirmed Moscow’s troops fled quickly after being picked up by high-speed boats.
An official at Ukraine’s Presidential office in Kyiv, Andriy Yermak, called the declaration a “complete fake”. He added: “The Armed Forces of Ukraine knocked out the Russians from the island.”
Kremlin war-chiefs had desperately tried to install anti-aircraft protection guns on the island after a string of devastating attacks on Russian warships.
The key setback for Russia may mean vital Ukraine may be closer to re-starting crucial grain exports from its coast, averting a global food shortage disaster.
Ukrainians were forced to give up the island, which guards the Black Sea’s north-west corner, early on in the conflict but have pummelled occupying Russians there for four months, forcing the retreat.
However, experts fear it is “early days” for the opening up of Ukraine’s ports as Russian warships still dominate the Black Sea and can attack from a stand-off position.
One British former military intelligence officer said: “There are many obstacles facing Ukraine in the coming weeks before they will manage to free up access through the Black Sea.
“They will become increasingly dependent on missile systems which are making their way to the frontline and have been supplied by the West.”
As many as 12 of Moscow’s landing ships, carrying tanks and infantry are feared to be lined up in the Black Sea ready to strike at Ukraine’s coastline.
Today the Akula, a Russian D-106 Ondatra-class landing ship, was destroyed after hitting a mine close to the now ruined port of Mariupol.
And pro-Russian separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic confirmed 144 Ukrainian prisoners had been swapped with Kyiv, many of them suffering terrible wounds including amputations.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered Russia not to kill two “death penalty” Britons captured fighting for Ukraine.
Earlier this month, a court in the self-proclaimed DPR sentenced Aiden Aslin, 28 and Shaun Pinner, 48, to death for “mercenary activities”.
The ECHR has issued an order for interim measures, telling Russia it “should ensure that the death penalty imposed on the applicants was not carried out; ensure appropriate conditions of their detention; and provide them with any necessary medical assistance and medication”.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the fate of these mercenaries” was a matter for the DPR, adding: “Russia no longer complies with the prescriptions of the ECHR.”
Both Aslin and Pinner had joined the Ukraine military years before the war and both have Ukrainian wives.
They had been deployed to the city of Mariupol where Ukrainian soldiers in their brigade surrendered April.
The UK Foreign Office said: “We are doing everything we can to support the men and are in close contact with and helping their families.
“We condemn the exploitation of prisoners of war for political purposes and have raised this with Russia.”